Mapping Historic Ballard Contextual Overview
Ballard is located in the northwest corner of Seattle on Salmon Bay and Puget Sound. As a community, Ballard has an identity and a strong sense of place distinctly separate from the rest of Seattle. This legacy springs from its status as an independent city, the City of Ballard, established in 1889.
Historically the Shilshole Native Americans used the Salmon Bay area seasonally, primarily near the water as the interior was heavily forested with cedar and fir. In1852, the same year the Denny Party landed in Seattle, Ira Utter and Osbourne Hall filed a homestead claim for land that is now Ballard. Hall sold out to Utter who continued to live alone on his 820 acres on Salmon Bay for almost 20 years.
Ballard’s first wave of development occurred in 1871 when D.W. Crooks bought 720 acres that had belonged to Ira Utter. In1882 it was platted into 10 acre plots with 60-foot wide streets and called Farmdale. In 1887, three main investors, Captain Ballard (for whom Ballard was named), Mr. Burke and Mr. Leary formed the West Coast Improvement Company to profit from their combined land holdings. In 1889, the West Coast Improvement Co. platted and registered Gilman Park, which was divided into 3000 residential lots measuring 50ft by 100ft with large lots on the waterfront for industrial use. The highly profit-motivated company then lured businesses and promoted infrastructure that made Ballard an attractive place to live.
Ballard is separated from Seattle by the Salmon Bay Waterway. Ballard’s transportation infrastructure was, and still is, an ongoing issue. Due to its proximity to water, boats were an important form of transport when Ballard was founded. Ballard’s first wagon bridge was built in 1889 and the first railroad bridge went up in 1890. Ballard had its own stop on the railroad. In 1890 the private trolley company, the West Street Electric Co, initiated trains between Ballard and Seattle. Eventually the network for trolley tracks running through Ballard was extensive. Traces of these tracks can still be seen on some roads in Ballard today and explain why some streets in Ballard are much wider than standard.
The City of Ballard prospered primarily because of its lumber and shingle mills along the industrial waterfront. Ballard was the ideal location for timber mills. Captain Ballard convinced Mr. Stimson to build Stimson’s Mill on Salmon Bay. Ballard’s topography slopes down to the water and its virgin forest was cut, rolled down to the mills and boards and shingles were carried away by ship. The Seattle Cedar Company followed in 1890. By 1905 more red cedar shingles were being produced in Ballard’s ten shingle mills than in any other community nationwide, earning Ballard the nickname “Shingletown.” Ballard was also referred to as the “Shingle Capital of America.”
In the early 20th century, Ballard’s fishing and boat building industries, begun by small family operations, grew in importance. The Ballard Locks, built in 1912-1917, and the Ship Canal project, 1911-1934, provided a sheltered harbor for the fishing fleet. In 1914 Fisherman’s Terminal was established on the south shore of Shilshole Bay. Its facilities continue to support one of the largest fishing fleets on the West Coast and its supporting maritime industry has provided livelihoods for generations. Sawmills, boiler works, boat building, manufacturing, foundries, building construction and fishing supplies were all traditional Ballard industries. The Ballard Locks is now second in the world to only the Panama Canal in number of boats that move through it every day and is the third most popular tourist destination in Seattle, after the Space Needle and Pike Place Market. However the marine traffic is now recreational as well as commercial.
Only a block from the mills, a bustling commercial district developed along Ballard Avenue. This business district remains largely intact today because the City of Seattle designated it a Historic Landmark District in 1976. Its buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In the 1930s Market Street became the focus of business in downtown Ballard and today both Ballard Avenue and Market Street form the nexus of downtown Ballard.
City of Ballard
The City of Ballard was incorporated in 1890. It was the first community to incorporate after Washington achieved statehood in 1889. Ballard’s city council and jail were both located in Ballard City Hall at the north end of Ballard Avenue. The bell still hangs and rings in its original place today though the building it topped is gone (1965 earthquake damage). In 1904, Ballard built the first Carnegie Library in the greater Seattle area, now privately owned but still standing. Ballard had its own hospital and own fire department. Ballard also had many bars and, according to urban myth, an equal number of churches many of which are still standing along 20th Avenue NW. Although population increased rapidly, north Ballard was still relatively rural. In 1903, the Cow Ordinance went into effect prohibiting free roaming cows south of 65th Street but north of 65th cows could still roam free. Although not all still in use for religious purposes there are a large number of structures built as churches in the sector just north of downtown Ballard to NW 65th. This includes wooden churches that are distinctive within Seattle as a whole.
Like other communities on the outskirts of Seattle, Ballard quickly outgrew its resources.
Seattle’s water source was the Cedar River. Ballard was not so lucky. In 1907, primarily due to lack of adequate water for its population of 15,000, Ballard citizens voted to be annexed to Seattle to ensure a good water supply for the area. Although Ballard’s City Hall was draped in black that day, Ballard did not lose its identity post-annexation.
After annexation Ballard’s street names were changed to conform to Seattle’s: Ship Street turned into 65th Street, Main Street became 15th Avenue. Streets that did not coordinate with the Seattle street grid maintained their original names such as Mary Street, Alonzo Street, Tallman Avenue, and Shilshole Avenue. Today you can see some of the original street names in tile at certain corners around Ballard. There were no public parks in the City of Ballard. After annexation Gilman Park was designated by the City of Seattle. In the 1920s Golden Gardens beach was at first privately developed and promoted. In 1927 the City of Seattle Parks Department designated Golden Gardens a public beach.
Ballard attracted a large immigrant population. Scandinavians in particular migrated to the area because the two primary industries, logging and fishing, were familiar and the landscape of the region reminded them of where they were from but with a better growing climate. Ballard was a working class town. Scandinavians, as a rule, do not like to incur debt and tended to pay in cash for their homes. This may help explain why many of the homes in Ballard are modest.
Ballard’s housing stock grew as Ballard consistently topped all other Seattle neighborhoods for pre-World War II growth. Early Ballard houses were often farmhouses with room for large gardens, which were later filled in with more houses. Single-family lots of 50 by 100 were actually double-plats so that each lot was allowed to have two houses. This is why many Ballard streets have eclectic housing styles with Victorians next to Post-War Boxes, though some streets do have consistent architectural styles in a row. Today in Ballard you can still see pioneer farm houses, company (mill) cottages, Victorian, Classic Box, Craftsman/Bungalows, miscellaneous: Tudor Cottage, Mission Cottage, Mench homes, Prairie Homes, Swiss Chalet, Italian Renaissance, Post War, Mid-Century. Wood was abundant and cheap. Many of Ballard’s older homes are built from old growth timber, superior in quality to second growth or farmed lumber.
In the 1990s the concept of creating Urban Villages throughout Seattle was implemented to concentrate growth near commercial districts and prevent sprawl. Because Ballard is an attractive place to live relatively close to downtown Seattle, by 2015 Ballard had exceeded predicted population growth by over 300 percent. Houses in the up-zoned residential area designated as the Urban Village core are being replaced by new apartment buildings and town houses at a rapid rate with little regard to their historic context. There is currently no comprehensive inventory of the historic homes and buildings of Ballard. The purpose of the project is to create an inventory that records what is still historic in Ballard in 2016 and provide an easy way to look at both an overview of this aspect of Ballard and at details for specific houses and buildings.
Passport to Ballard and Ballard Historical Society Classic Home Tour guides